Monday Scramble: Dramatic win, dramatic turnaround

Monday Scramble: Dramatic win, dramatic turnaround

Grayson Murray's hard work off the course pays off, Rory McIlroy can't avoid the big miss, two key leaders announce their exits and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

Another redemptive story led the way on the PGA Tour.

A week after Chris Kirk won for the second time in his inspiring comeback from alcoholism, Grayson Murray – who has endured his own struggles with alcohol abuse, depression and anxiety – knocked down a 40-footer to win the Sony Open in a playoff.

Now 30, Murray sounds like a completely different man than the one who first won in his rookie season in 2017. He’s getting married in April. He’s devoted himself to his faith and his family. He appears humble and appreciative – a far cry from the angry young hotshot who, in his words, was “arrogant” and “jealous” coming out, knowing he had the game to contend right away against the world’s best. That he didn’t always deliver eventually sent him on the dark road that led to Tour discipline and a monthlong stint in rehab.

Reflecting on those low points, Murray said there were days when he struggled to get out of bed, when he felt like a failure, when he thought he was a wasted talent.

“I struggle with anxiety, I struggle with depression – that stemmed a lot from the alcohol use,” he said Sunday. “I struggle with comparing myself to others, self-esteem. They’re common issues that we all endure. But I got tired of trying to fight it alone, and I asked for help one day, and that’s when my life changed.”

After a year on the Korn Ferry Tour, Murray is back where he feels he belongs. Fighting for position Sunday with a jampacked leaderboard at Waialae, he flashed his new-and-improved short-game skills – he was a perfect 12-for-12 in bunker saves, including clutch up-and-downs on 16 and 17 to stay in the mix. Even while out of position off the tee on 18, he stuffed a wedge in regulation that got him into overtime with Keegan Bradley and Ben An, then dropped the hammer in the playoff with the 40-foot bomb.

For a player who was once again trying to find his footing on Tour, Murray’s career trajectory just changed dramatically. Not only is he in the Masters for the first time, but he also gained entry into the rest of the $20 million signature-event series on Tour.

He’s proud of the work – and the team around him – that helped get him there.

“I think we all have our own paths, and we all have our own journeys, and we all have our own ways of getting to where we want to be,” Murray said. “I’m 30, and I feel like, starting now, I can be the golfer that I’ve always wanted to be.”

Dubai Invitational - Day Four
Dubai Invitational - Day Four

When Tommy Fleetwood poured in a 15-foot slider to win the Dubai Invitational, Rory McIlroy gave him a fist bump and a hug, then walked off the final green with his arm slung over his shoulder.

You’d never have known that McIlroy had put two balls in the water – including on the 72nd hole – and three-putted from 3 feet to lose the inaugural event by one.

Indeed, the Masters, this was not.

McIlroy’s late lowlights represented a sloppy end to an otherwise encouraging season debut. The world No. 2 was leading by a shot on the tee of the closing hole when he hooked his drive into the water – the kind of rusty, mental mistake one might expect after two months away; McIlroy wanted to hit a fade off the last but instead went with the shot that he knew he probably “should” hit, to better fit the hole and cover the right fairway bunker.

The final-hole blunder dropped McIlroy into a tie for second behind Fleetwood, who began his European tour campaign with a bang after going winless in 2023 despite playing some of the best golf of his career.

McIlroy played the first leg of the Dubai doubleheader essentially as a warmup; the event featured just 60 pros and 60 amateurs, and he stayed on-site to put more work into his game. At times, his play appeared plenty sharp, but he was undone not just by the iron shot into the water on 6, or the stunning three-putt on 14, or the untimely hook on the last. He also made a quadruple bogey in the second round and did well to rally to take the halfway lead.

“You expect that in the first week back after a break,” he said. “If I clean that up next week, I feel like the rest of my game is right there.”

It’s why he allowed himself a bit more grace than usual after the eyebrow-raising finish.

Even with the future of the elite men’s game still uncertain, two of the sport's most high-profile leaders are planning their exit.

Leaving at the beginning of April is Keith Pelley, the DP World Tour CEO who has helmed the circuit for nearly nine years. Pelley has accepted his “dream job” as the head of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, but the timing of his move, of course, couldn’t be much worse – Pelley’s European tour is fighting to maintain its place in the golf hierarchy as the PGA Tour and Saudi Public Investment Fund try to reach a definitive agreement.

Pelley’s legacy will undoubtedly be mixed. Though he was lauded for his leadership through the COVID pandemic, he also entertained the Saudis’ financial backing but ultimately sided with the Tour in a strategic partnership, a decision that alienated some European stalwarts and unofficially made the DP World Tour a feeder system for the PGA Tour, with the top 10 points-earners now earning Tour membership each year.

The well-respected Martin Slumbers hasn’t been nearly as polarizing, with the former investment banker earning high marks for the way he modernized the R&A – including the introduction of the golf ball rollback, beginning at the elite level in 2028 – and increasing the commercial opportunities for The Open. He’ll step aside later this fall.

To no one’s surprise, top lieutenant Guy Kinnings is taking over for Pelley, beginning April 2. Perhaps he could become a peacemaker of sorts: In his past life, as the former head of IMG Golf, Kinnings managed Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson, as well as current European Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald.

Welcome Back: Gary Woodland. It was a shorter-than-expected return, but anyone who saw Woodland’s pre-tournament press conference at the Sony – where he spoke with clear-eyed candor about the struggles he faced prior to brain surgery – can’t help but root for him going forward. Here’s hoping it won’t be long before he regains his major-winning form.

And a Hello to You, As Well: Daniel Berger. Speaking of comebacks, the former U.S. Ryder Cupper will make his first Tour appearance in nearly a year and a half this week in the California desert. Beset by a serious back injury, Berger’s career has been put on hold. After rumors and speculation about his return date, he finally has one at the AmEx. Good luck to the player who was ranked 25th in the world when he last teed it up.

Mickelson back inside Ryder Cup bubble
Mickelson back inside Ryder Cup bubble

Ya Think?: Phil Mickelson. Answering a question about his prospects of being the 2025 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, Mickelson said that, at this time, he’s too “divisive” of a figure to lead the American squad. At least give him credit for recognizing it. There might eventually be a time when Lefty is brought back into the Team USA fold, but the Bethpage Cup seems much too soon, especially with Tiger Woods and other Tour loyalists so entrenched in the back room. Yes, Mickelson jeopardized his sporting legacy with his polarizing move to LIV, but it’d still be a shame if he didn’t someday get the head Ryder Cup gig, if only for the #content.

Questionable: Carl Yuan. In the mix for his first Tour victory, Yuan – who was only in the Sony field because Jon Rahm defected for LIV, bumping him from 126th to the all-important 125th in FedExCup points – flailed his second shot into 18 well right of the green. The ball appeared headed for the grandstands down the right-hand side and then, in the slow-motion replay, disappeared from view. After a discussion, Tour officials determined it was a “virtual certainty” that Yuan’s ball had come to rest in the large hospitality complex, allowing him a free drop near the green. But that ruling raised eyebrows because no one there actually located the ball. Why did it matter? Because a lost ball would have required Yuan to replay his shot, with a penalty, from 239 yards away and in the fairway bunker. Instead, he dropped 40 yards short of the green and made par, keeping him in a tie for fourth – and banking him another $100,000. Fortuitous, to say the least.

Trending Up: Ben An. That’s now back-to-back top-5 finishes to start the new year for An, who didn’t play at all last fall after being suspended by the Tour for testing positive for a substance that was found in over-the-counter cough medicine. An continues to strike the ball as well as he ever has, and he’s risen all the way to 39th in the world, so it shouldn’t take him long to get over the 4-foot miss that would have extended the playoff against Murray. A breakthrough win can’t be far away.

Trending, Uh, Down: Ken Weyand. Much attention last week was unfortunately paid to the travails of Weyand, the director of golf at Michael Jordan’s exclusive club, The Grove XXIII, in South Florida. Weyand secured one of the two available sponsor exemptions into the 60-man, no-cut event, with $2.5 million on offer – enough to prompt Eddie Pepperell to tweet: “I don’t care if he’s Ken from Barbie, it shouldn’t happen.” All the 54-year-old Weyand did last week was post an ugly score line of 87-82-82-86, leaving him to finish 53 over par for the week and a mind-blowing 72 (!) shots behind Fleetwood. Yikes.